The International Day for Universal Access to Information is celebrated globally today (September 28)
It will be timely to point out on this special day that Sri Lanka, with a blossoming Right to Information Act in hand, stands at a crucial juncture in totally achieving the challenging criteria of universal access to information.
The Sri Lankan Right to Information (RTI) Act received high recognition regionally and internationally. The Global RTI Rating, a program initiated by the Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe ranked Sri Lankan RTI law on the ninth place in September 2016. As of date Sri Lanka has been elevated to the third position in the Global Indicator. Sri Lanka is ranked as having the strongest RTI law among the countries that newly implemented this law.
The RTI Act is expected to change the culture of secrecy and promote transparency and accountability of the public service.
Right to Information underwent a long debate in Sri Lanka until it came in to force on February 03, 2017 as the Right to Information Act. The Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) was a part of this endeavour seeing the many ups and downs of the advocacy campaign. Right to Information came in for serious consideration on the national agenda following the Colombo Declaration for Media Freedom and Social Responsibility in 1998.
We at the SLPI, concerned in securing Good Governance and Freedom of Expression, accelerated our public awareness campaigns as the advocating of the Right to Information (RTI) Bill resurfaced with the change of Governments in January 2015.
The RTI Bill was passed with amendments in Parliament on June 24, 2016 and became a law when the Speaker of the Parliament signed the Act on August 4, 2016. The RTI Act No. 12 of 2016 came in to effect on February 03, 2017.
The highest number of inquiries (38) received was from Gampaha district placing Colombo at the second place with 36 inquiries. Out of the balance 212 inquiries, 176 were from outstation areas covering all the provinces of the country.
In the current context, the Media Ministry, in terms of the Act, is the nodal institute responsible for effective implementation of the RTI. Yet, the SLPI recognized the urgent need of public awareness as well as a public response monitoring system running in parallel to the Government mechanism.
The new law received a most favourable response from the democracy loving public. However there were allegations about a lacuna in public awareness campaigns. In this backdrop SLPI launched a pilot project acting as a facilitator for the public to utilize the new law.
From the day that Act came in to force, the helpline established by the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) received 286 calls from the public. Within the first two weeks the data indicated a peak in the number of calls that surprisingly nosedived within the second week. Yet within two days of that, the trend started to rise gradually leading to a sharp increase as we entered the third week.
Despite negative speculations on public awareness, the SLPI observed that the majority of the inquiries were from citizens living out of Colombo. The highest number of inquiries (38) received was from Gampaha district placing Colombo at the second place with 36 inquiries. Out of the balance 212 inquiries, 176 were from outstation areas covering all the provinces of the country. The remaining 36 callers were not willing to disclose their areas of residence.
For evaluation purposes, the SLPI team observed inquiries relating to five key issues – Education, Infrastructure, Health, Employment and RTI.
The highest number of inquiries (115) was on issues relating to infrastructure with the majority seeking information on road development. This suggested that people were most concerned about regional development with questions about the involvement of local government authorities. Interest in road development was probably due to the attention the subject received in the sphere of rural development in the recent past. There were numerous allegations of bribery against local authorities, particularly directed at politicians accused of malpractices in rural road development projects. There were several inquiries on irrigation schemes and garbage collection as well.
The second largest group of callers inquired about the RTI and its processes.
The education sector was the third largest area of public interest according to this data, with the majority of inquiries relating to school admission. This being a controversial matter in many parts of the country with paucity of information on the methods adopted, many people were keen to gather information on the subject. A few inquiries were on teacher transfer criteria, pension delays of education service personnel and information on examinations and assessment methods were received.
Surprisingly there were no inquiries on the health sector during this one month period.
Apart from these we observed that there were a significant number of inquiries on matters relating to vehicle registration.
The majority of callers had learnt about the RTI through the media - the print media
Analysing the total data, it was evident that majority were keen on information relating to activities implemented through local authorities for the reason that a lot of the work affecting peoples’ lives is done through these authorities.
These observations were made during the initial stages of the implementation of the Act. It can be said that it is natural for the public to show a high level of interest at this stage. Longer observation is necessary to clearly understand public interest in RTI. The core factor in the successful implementation of the RTI Act is public engagement. The more people use this tool, the more improvement in accountability and transparency of the Public sector and its services to the country and citizens will be seen.
The momentum of public enthusiasm observed during the initial stages must be sustained. In implementing a public helpline, SLPI observed the need of a supporting network to encourage citizens to properly utilize their Right to Information. The nodal ministry and the RTI Commission must ensure the proper implementation of the Act. Keeping the peoples’ enthusiasm alive will be the responsibility of activists, civil society, and professional organizations and politicians representing the public.
For further information: Please call RTI Helpline – 070 3300 700